The Delta Grassroots Caucus (DGC) is a broad coalition of grassroots leaders in the eight-state Delta region. DGC is also a founding partner of the Economic Equality Caucus,
which advocates for economic equality across the USA.

National Fox news with Brit Hume Plans Report on Save the Delta Queen Campaign.

Posted on July 17, 2008 at 12:03 PM

We are succeeding in generating great media and Congressional interest in our efforts to save the historic Delta Queen steamboat, which is a national treasure and generates economic development in many communities in the Mississippi Delta where it stops. One important example is that the national Fox TV news is scheduled to have a report (barring some major event that bumps us aside) on this subject on Friday, July 18, 2008 at 6 p.m. EASTERN TIME, with possible shorter segments earlier in the day. In the meantime, please keep calling your Members of Congress and encourage them to vote for legislation that will keep this historic steamboat plying the waters of the Mighty Mississippi and its tributaries like the Ohio River.

In addition to your Members of Congress, please contact Majestic America and tell them that the Delta Queen must continue to travel our inland waterways and not be doomed to death as a static museum, hotel, or casino!!!!! The company in the past has considered selling the boat for such improper uses, and we need to encourage all relevant parties to keep the boat plying the waters of the Mississippi and its tributaries as it has for so many decades.

Call Joseph McCarthy at (949) 759-5951 or (cell) (949) 300-1785. Or send him an email at

The Delta Queen is a national historic treasure that has plied either the Mississippi River, its tributaries or other bodies of water for 80 years, promoting economic development in many Delta communities where it stops, while educating people about the great steamboat heritage going back to the days of Mark Twain. At present, there are political shenanigans going on in Congress that threaten to terminate this historic steamboat’s legacy of promoting economic development all up and down the Mississippi River and its tributaries, and we urge all Delta Caucus partners to contact your Members of Congress and ask them to save the Delta Queen.

The Delta Queen has an exemplary safety record going back 80 years, but some politicians are playing political shenanigans due to a conflict between the company and unions. The Delta Queen has won an exemption from the Safety at Seas Act for many decades, due to its steel hull and numerous safety precautions. It passes Coast Guard inspections six times a year. You are safer on the Queen than you are in your car.

The Safety at Seas Act was passed in 1966 to deal with ocean-going vessels after an ocean liner sank in the Caribbean Sea, and Congress has long recognized that the riverboat is safe and applying the Safety at Seas Act to it would be absurd. The steamboat’s exemption to the Safety at Seas Act will expire in November, 2008, so please contact your Members of Congress and urge them to SAVE THE DELTA QUEEN!

Supporters of the Delta Queen include Members of Congress from both parties such as Sen. Blanche Lincoln, Rep. Mike Ross, Rep. Marion Berry (AR) , Rep. Jo Ann Emerson (MO), Rep. Rodney Alexander (LA), Rep. Ed Whitfield (KY), Rep. John Tanner (TN), and many others in the Delta, as well as many in Ohio like Rep. Steve Chabot and Rep. Charlie Wilson, since the Delta Queen also travels the Ohio River.

The Delta Queen is the last of America’s wooden paddlewheel steamers, so this is a unique gem of America’s heritage we are talking about. Once she is gone she cannot be replaced.

Below is a detailed analysis of this situation, if you would like to get all the facts, although what I have summarized in the few paragraphs already stated are sufficient for you to understand the situation.

DETAILED ANALYSIS OF DELTA QUEEN ISSUES Please do not be fooled by politicians–who happen to be from Minnesota and Hawaii and so do not have the direct stake in this that we have in Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, western Tennesee and Kentucky, southeast Missouri, and southern Illinois. They are responding to pressure from unions in their conflict with the company that owns the Delta Queen. We are not taking sides in the union versus company fight, but politicians should be honest enough to admit that this is about politics, and has nothing to do with safety, because the Delta Queen has a great safety record. The demagogues who are behind this think they can make political points with the unions and pose as champions of safety, when all they are really doing is destroying a national treasure.

To give just one example of the Delta Queen’s impact, it brings about 174 tourists to the small town of Helena-West Helena, Arkansas six or so times a year. They go on tours of the town and stop at the Delta Cultural Center, make stops at the stores and restaurants, etc. Helena-West Helena has serious economic challenges, as do many other Delta towns, and every tourist dollar spent there is an investment in the community’s future, in addition to educating people about the city’s great heritage.

WE HAVE FOUR MONTHS TO SAVE THE DELTA QUEEN! Thanks very much. Lee Riley Powell, MDGC (202) 360-6347

SAFETY AT SEA ACT: The Delta Queen is not in violation of the law, since Congress has provided this legal exemption for decades. If the exemption is not continued past this November, the vessel would be decommissioned due to a 1966 federal fire safety law called the Safety at Sea Act, which prohibits a wooden vessel with more than 50 passengers from making overnight voyages. The boat carries 174 passengers plus the crew of about 75. The Delta Queen has won nine congressional exemptions. The latest will expire in October. Since it has received these exemptions for decades, they are not currently in violation of the act.

THE DELTA QUEEN IS ALWAYS CLOSE TO LAND: The Safety at Sea Act assumes that vessels are remote from land and other vessels. Congress in the past has always concluded that this is not applicable in the case of the Delta Queen, which is a riverboat can be landed in minutes over the entire route she traverses. Her forward mounted swing bridge and inflatable emergency boats on the stern make it easy and effective to evacuate passengers very quickly within moments of notice. The staterooms on the Delta Queen have exits directly to open decks, except for the cabins in one lounge, which has a big window to an open deck. There are no dead walkways on the whole boat and there are several outside staircases between all cabin decks. We are not talking about a seagoing vessel here.

THE APPLICABLE LAW WAS PASSED TO ADDRESS A DISASTER THAT HAPPENED IN THE CARIBBEAN SEA IN 1966: The Safety at Sea Act of 1966 was passed after a disastrous fire on the S.S. Yarmouth Castle in the Caribbean Sea, during which ninety lives were lost. The S.S. Yarmouth was an old ocean liner. Hereafter, the Coast Guard had decided, there would be no wood at all in vessels flying the American flag if they carried fifty passengers or more in overnight or longer passage. For bureaucratic red tape reasons, the legislation did not deal with boats that were in a totally different situation from the Yarmouth Castle plying the Caribbean Sea, even for a riverboat that can always be beached in less than five minutes. The Mississippi River is a very large river, but this is a very different context than a sea like the Caribbean.

CONGRESS HAS PASSED THIS EXEMPTION FOR MANY DECADES: Clearly, Congress has concluded for decades now that termination of the Delta Queen would be a misapplication of the Safety at Seas law because the 1966 statute was designed to affect ocean-going vessels that had legitimate fire hazards. The passage of this exemption for decades, the many safety precautions we have listed, the Coast Guard inspections, and the strong safety record over an 80-year period speak for themselves.

DELTA QUEEN’S NUMEROUS SAFETY FEATURES: The Delta Queen is the last of America’s wooden paddlewheel steamers, so this is a unique part of America’s heritage we are talking about. But we are not talking about an all-wooden vessel or one that ventures far from land. The Delta Queen has an excellent safety record despite its wooden superstructure. The hull is made of steel and the wood has been coated with fire-resistant paint, every room is equipped with heat and smoke detectors, and modern sprinkler and electronic monitoring systems have been installed. Additionally, there are guards on duty who patrol the riverboat during the night. Also, like big cruise vessels, the Delta Queen’s passengers and crew undergo a fire and boat drill at the beginning of each cruise.

COAST GUARD INSPECTIONS: Congressman Chabot’s office emphasizes that the Coast Guard inspects the vessel every couple of months, and of course they have passed all these inspections.

There is another complication here. The Coast Guard inspectors who have actually inspected the Delta Queen are very impressed with her many safety precautions. Many advocates based on the Ohio River who are very knowledgeable about all of this and have talked with this Coast Guard official extensively. However, please be advised that you will get a different tone if you talk to Coast Guard bureaucrats in Washington, DC who have never seen the Delta Queen. The only thing they know is that this vessel is partly wooden, and they do not know or care about all the other safety precautions. In a nutshell, the Coast Guard inspectors who have actually inspected the Delta Queen have a very positive view of her. If you are going to contact the Coast Guard it will be important to get in touch with those who have actually worked on this as opposed to a bureaucrat in Washington, DC who really knows nothing about it and couldn’t care less.

THE COMPANY VERSUS UNION ISSUE IS WHAT CHANGED MATTERS, AND THIS DEBATE IS TRULY NOT ABOUT SAFETY: What happened to jeopardize this exemption that has been passed for 40 years? A new owner of the steamboats changed from union to non-union status on the Delta Queen a couple of years ago. The change to non-union status for employees on the Delta Queen was at least partly influenced by financial disruptions caused by Hurricane Katrina. The company that used to operate the vessels suffered major financial reverses from Katrina and sold out.

CURRENT COMPANY IS IN SEVERE FINANCIAL DISTRESS: The current owner, which operates the Delta Queen and several other steamboats, indicates that in trying to get the financial operation back on its feet, they just cannot afford to pay the high wages of the Seafarers International Union on all their boats. They offered to let the Delta Queen be unionized but could not afford to do so for all the boats, and the union said “all or nothing.”

There is not necessarily a villain in the conflict between the union and the company. This company, Majestic America, and its parent company, Ambassadors International, are under enormous financial strain and are actually currently trying to sell the Delta Queen to concentrate on its international cruise line, Windstar. The company says it is trying to find a buyer who will keep all its steamboats afloat.

If they cannot sell the steamboats they will be in even worse financial difficulty. Two of the prospective buyers may have the financial stability to afford to let the unions back in.

If the company sells the Delta Queen to a company that allows unions, this issue will probably be resolved. But they have not finalized the sale yet so we do not know how that will be resolved.

People who have followed the Delta Queen since the first time it was saved in a campaign supported by Johnny Cash in 1970 have indicated that Majestic America has been quite inept in mismanaging the Delta Queen and other steamboats since it took over a couple of years ago. They are more interested in their international cruise line and have little interest in the Delta Queen and could really care less whether the exemption is renewed or not–they just want to sell and get out. I say this just so you will know that we don’t really have to take sides between the company and the union–both are probably partly at fault.

UNION OPPOSITION: After 40 years of always getting exemptions based on its strong safety record and continuing and increasing safety precautions, the basic opposition has been led by Congressional allies of the Seafarers International Union. The union represented the Delta Queen’s crew for more than 30 years, until Majestic America took over the boat in 2006 and made them non-union. Rep. Oberstar of Minnesota and Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii have led the charge to terminate the Delta Queen, emphasizing safety standards, and this is a major problem in confusing the issue because they were never concerned about safety in previous years when they voted for the exemption, before the financial pressures regarding international seafarers’ wages became the pressing issue that it is now.

OBERSTAR AND INOUYE LEAD THE OPPOSITION, BASED ON UNION CONSIDERATIONS: We are sure Rep. Oberstar and Sen. Inouye are very fine Members of Congress in most other ways, but they are just not objective on this issue. They do not have the economic concerns or the local impact that Senators and Representatives in Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri, Kentucky and Ohio have. The boats do occasionally go up to St. Paul, Minnesota, but their economic, cultural and historical impact there is minimal compared to the Delta. Sen. Inouye, of course, has no economic impact for his area of Hawaii. Their consideration in this is to make some political points with the unions and claim to be a great champion for labor, while also confusing matters about the safety questions.

CLEAR UNION INVOLVEMENT: It is very unfortunate that Oberstar and the union are not being candid enough to admit that the union is heavily involved in this issue. The Seafarers International Union claims to have nothing to do with the Delta Queen issue, yet in a press release from November, 2007, they stated that: “This union has the only pool of unlicensed mariners with special training and a long history of meeting the needs specifically associated with the Delta Queen”. This is incorrect, because the union did not train many former Delta Queen employees, and the majority of the crew just signed their Union contract at the very moment they started working on the boat.

The union also stated in that release that “Our role in helping safely operate the vessel is one reason why the waiver had been granted in years past.” This is again misleading. The union doesn’t hold an exclusive contract with the operator of the boat any more, and they are taking credit for safety inspections that the Coast Guard did both during the earlier union era and the current non-union era. The company has made major investments in safety equipment and precautions. It’s still the job of the US Coast Guard to make sure the boat is being operated safely, not the job of the Seafarers International Union. Their effort to claim the credit for the strong safety record of the vessel has no basis.


Perhaps the National Trust for Historic Preservation said it best:

“The Delta Queen is the last survivor of a once thriving fleet of steam paddleboats plying the inland waters of the United States, and deserves to, indeed, must survive as a living reminder of an important era of America history… . The loss of the Delta Queen as an operating vessel carrying overnight passengers on the Mississippi and its tributaries would be an irreplaceable one and would remove the last remaining link with the steam-boating tradition of nineteenth and early twentieth century America.”

The Delta Queen is on the National Register of Historic Places and is a great asset to tourism and economic development. Impoverished places like Helena-West Helena can use every source of tourist dollars they can get.

The exemption was further extended to 1983 and several times thereafter, most recently in the Coast Guard Reauthorization Act of 1996, until November 1, 2008.

OBERSTAR’S ERRONEOUS COMMENTS: It is very unfortunate that Rep. Oberstar has made a series of utterly erroneous and irrelevant comparisons in his effort to terminate this steamboat, such as–

“In the operation of the trade on the Mississippi River, the worst disaster in history occurred, fire onboard a paddle wheeler. Yes, in the 19th century, but 1,700 people died 100 yards from shore.”

OBERSTAR IS USING A BOILER-ROOM EXPLOSION THAT HAPPENED IN 1865 TO SCARE PEOPLE ABOUT THE DELTA QUEEN IN 2008: Oberstar’s comment was intended to refute the reality that the Delta Queen is always close to the shore and therefore requirements for vessels on the high seas are not applicable. What Oberstar is referring to is the Sultana steamboat disaster of 1865, which was caused by a boiler explosion, something that is not applicable today. At that time due to a lack of safety standards steamboats had an average lifetime of 3-5 years and boiler explosions were relatively common. The Delta Queen now is 82 years old and never had any major incidents in her whole lifetime. The Sultana could carry 376 persons, including crew, about double the Delta Queen today.

The captain of the Sultana overloaded the boat with the incredible number of more than 1,700 passengers, mainly Confederate prisoners of war and other soldiers desperate to make their way back home at the end of the Civil War. It is irresponsible and not particularly honest, to put it diplomatically, to dredge up the Sultana disaster of 143 years ago under completely different circumstances and compare that to the Delta Queen of today. Steamboats in 1865 did not have any of the fire precautions and boiler room safety that we have today.

Oberstar also said that “Earlier this month, the Queen of the West, this April, a similar paddle wheel operated by the very same company that owns and operates the Delta Queen had a fire in the engine room, required evacuation of 177 passengers and crew. Three crew members were treated for smoke inhalation.”

The Queen of the West is a different type of boat and has nothing to do with the Delta Queen. The Queen of the West is an all-steel boat with a hydraulic-driven paddlewheel, and has no wooden superstructure and no steam. The Queen of the West is a Coast Guard certified vessel, and so is the Delta Queen. The only convoluted logic to be deduced from Oberstar’s comment is that all these boats are dangerous and all of them should be decommissioned, but that is not what Oberstar is saying–he is only trying to get rid of the Delta Queen. If anything, this comparison only proves that the Delta Queen HAS BETTER SAFETY THAN THE OTHER BOATS.

There are other erroneous comments that Oberstar made and we can refute all of them. They are just as bogus as the ones I mentioned here.

If you would like to get in communication with a veteran of the effort to save the Delta Queen, please contact Vickie Webster, who has been involved in saving the Delta Queen since it was first saved in 1970 by a coalition supported by Johnny Cash, then Congressman Bill Alexander and many others. Ms. Webster’s email is and phone is 513-381-3571, and she is based in Cincinnati, Ohio.

It is an indication of how widespread the concern is when you consider that people from Cincinnati, Ohio to New Orleans, Louisiana are heavily engaged in this, as well as others from around the country–on July 9, for example, we received a communication from an Arizona resident who plans to contact Sen. John McCain on this issue.

Thanks very much. Lee Riley Powell, Executive Director, Mississippi Delta Grassroots Caucus, (202) 360-6347